Spotlighting and Breaking Down Boston Celtics' Center Position
The battle for minutes at the pivot is wide open in Boston, where the Celtics are looking to find the player to carry on their big-man tradition.
Seizing the reins in the middle may be as simple as sticking around long enough to play. After the recent trade of Fab Melo to the Grizzlies, the waiving of Shavlik Randolph and the decision for Colton Iverson to play overseas, there simply aren't that many bodies left.
It will be a year of transition throughout the franchise, but nowhere is this more apparent than in the paint. Kevin Garnett's value to the Celtics will be crystal clear when the season begins. Finding another 7-footer with range out to the three-point line and an unparalleled defensive IQ could take decades.
That's not to say the position is a lost cause, as the big men on board all have an asset on their side that KG lost long ago: youth.
In a clearly rebuilding year for Boston, it's not so much raw production that matters from its young centers. Brad Stevens wasn't lured away from Butler to lead a title contender, but to build from the ground up.
Gonzaga product and Celtics first-round draft choice Kelly Olynyk has his fair share of limitations. Shooting has never been one of them.
During his final season in Spokane, Olynyk scored 18.1 points per game on an outrageous 63 percent from the field, good for a true shooting percentage of 68. To put that into perspective, that's a full 4 percentage points higher than the NBA's all-time leader in that category, Artis Gilmore.
Watching his pre-draft workout, his superior touch for a 7-footer leaps off the screen at you.
The beginning of the segment is especially jarring, as Olynyk hits several step-back jumpers in a row, followed by him burying a few spot-up threes. Outside of a few exceptions like Dirk Nowitzki and Ryan Anderson, men of that size are not really expected to have that in their arsenal.
That touch has always been there for Olynyk, who was a 6'2" guard as a high school freshman, but the development of his post game is what took his game to the next level. Buried behind upperclassmen Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, Olynyk red-shirted his junior year to work on his game.
The result was a more complete Olynyk who punished opponents inside and out. Gonzaga coach Mark Few witnessed the transformation first-hand:
He adjusted his game, quit settling for 3-pointers and became an all-around player. He changed his body and he made himself better mentally. On the bench we treated him almost like an assistant coach. Seeing things from our perspective -- the frustration of not blocking out or walking through something at shootaround and not executing it -- that probably would be beneficial to all players."
That rhetoric shows up on the game tape.
Sprinkled in with his jump-shooting are several plays he'll need to master to have a successful NBA career: the up-and-under, turnaround jumper and second-chance finishes. The skills are apparent, and Olynyk has shown that he has the drive and desire to improve his game.
Now the bad news: He's still a pretty awful defender.
NBA teams have become increasingly reliant on the pick-and-roll as we've watched a league-wide positional revolution. Considering the amount of young, talented point guards and athletic big men, the move makes sense. Unfortunately, Olynyk struggled at the college level to defend the bread-and-butter play.
Olynyk's lack of lateral quickness and general athleticism is obvious when he is chasing ball-handlers around screens, an issue that will only get worse when he moves from the West Coast Conference to the Atlantic Division.
To make matters worse, Olynyk struggles to defend in the post as well.
Listed at just 238 pounds, Olynyk is going to have to put on weight to defend the post at even an adequate level. As you can see in the second highlight, he gets pushed off his spot with ease. Being too slow or too weak can be compensated for, but making up for both is a tall task.
Despite those concerns, Olynyk figures to get the lion's share of minutes at the center position for the Celtics because of his offensive repertoire and lack of other bodies on the roster. Pencil him in for about 25 minutes, 15 points and seven rebounds.
The more mysterious of the two centers on the current roster, Brazilian import Vitor Faverani is an intriguing option for Boston.
He may be just 25 years old, but Faverani is already a veteran at the professional level. Having played professionally in Spain since age 17, his adjustment to facing men rather than boys has already been made.
Going through what little tape is available, his versatility is tantalizing:
Faverani scores in a wide variety of ways during this contest. The post-ups are encouraging, but watching him run the floor and finish a fast-break opportunity has to be a sight for sore eyes in Boston.
On the methodical veteran teams of years past, Rajon Rondo has often had to serve as a one man fast break. Having a big man like Faverani on the break along with wings like Jeff Green will give Rondo a multitude of options to work with when he pushes the pace.
Scouts have also hinted at Faverani's potential defensive impact:
He has got an NBA frame and great wingspan. He is pretty athletic and likes to work on the defensive end of the floor. He has good feet and he is good in (pick-and-roll) defense.
He is active, can block shots from the weak side and likes to bang.
Sounds wonderful, but odds are low that a player just making it to the league at 25 is going to be a game-changing talent. The most likely outcome is that Faverani is a good energy guy off the bench who will contribute something like 10-15 minutes, six points and a few rebounds.
With few true bigs on the roster, logic dictates that Coach Stevens will have to employ small-ball lineups fairly regularly. Jared Sullinger presents his best long-term option in such a scenario.
Assuming health, Sullinger is going to have a chance to play major minutes in the Celtics' frontcourt this season. Before succumbing to a back injury, he was averaging 10.9 points and and 10.7 rebounds per 36 last season, showing why Draft Express called him a "Kevin Love-like force of a rebounder at the college level."
Sullinger is constantly in the perfect position to rebound (note 1:55 and 2:18 of above clip) and is ready to put shots back up as soon as the ball hits his fingers. His instincts in the paint look effortless.
Unfortunately, Sullinger stands just 6'9" and is relatively unathletic. This presents a problem defensively, as he is unable to contain quicker power forwards yet too short to battle with bigger centers:
The effort is there (check out the the triple contest at :20), but he's constantly at a disadvantage because of his tool set. If Sullinger can improve his core strength and learn to use his 7'1" wingspan to his advantage, the makings of a solid defender are already in place.
"Sully" may get major minutes this season, but don't expect more than 5-10 minutes at center barring improvement defensively.
Losing versatile starters means that once-consolidated duties become shared responsibilities.
That goes not just for the centers, but also for the rest of the team. Without their former anchor in the middle, the pressure is on players like Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo to play stout defense on the perimeter to take the pressure off of their young bigs.
Offensively, the subtraction of veterans means the young guys will have every opportunity to leave their marks on the team. Low expectations will make playing in Boston a little more bearable for incoming rookies. Look for Olynyk to be a dark-horse contender for rookie of the year.
It may be a down year for the Celtics, but having a trio of centers battling for minutes will be fun to watch and beneficial for the franchise's future.
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